Confronting M&A Headwinds & Tailwinds In 2022

Deal activity picked back up in 2021 — and 2022 promises a similar pace, including enhanced interest in scale-building mergers of equals, according to Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP. Rick Childs, a partner at the firm, explains what factors could drive and hinder deal volume. He also discusses external pressures on the banking space, and how potential buyers and sellers should incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters.

  • Expectations for Deals in 2022
  • What Buyers Want
  • Balancing the Regulatory Burden
  • Weaving ESG With M&A

The 2022 Bank M&A Survey examines current growth strategies, including expectations for acquirers and what might drive a bank to sell, and provides an outlook on economic and regulatory matters. The survey results are also explored in the 1st quarter 2022 issue of Bank Director magazine.

ESG Factors Come to Play in M&A

As investors increase their focus on environmental, social and governance matters — otherwise known as ESG — the acronym is also making waves when it comes to M&A due diligence, according to Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP. But while the ESG acronym may be a newer one to the industry, many of the issues under the broad ESG umbrella are familiar to bankers.

Numerous areas fall under ESG. These include climate risk, energy and water use, and green-focused products and investments (environmental); organizational diversity, and employee and community engagement (social); and board composition and independence, shareholder rights, and ethics and compliance (governance). Cybersecurity and data privacy are also key elements, sometimes classified as social and sometimes as governance.

A typical bank M&A announcement tends to mention cultural alignment, and many ESG elements — particularly under the social and governance umbrellas — are strongly informed by an entity’s culture. Culture frequently comes up in the annual survey; this year, 64% of responding directors and executives identify a complementary culture as a top-five attribute in a seller. When asked about assessing the strategic fit of a target, 89% of respondents overall say they’d evaluate cultural alignment.

“Anytime you talk about an acquisition from the acquirer’s perspective, culture’s a big concern,” says Patrick Vernon, a senior manager at Crowe. “Culture [and] social and governance [factors] go hand in hand.”

For the acquirer, these considerations include cultural fit, employee integration and appropriate compensation to retain talent. For example, a seller where lenders work only on commission might not be a good fit for a buyer that where commission pay may be lower or nonexistent. Understanding those elements often calls for a qualitative assessment.

“If it’s a public company, I’d want to look at the human capital management disclosure in the 10K,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner in the regional and community banking consulting practice at McLagan. “What are some of the highlights, features, programs, results [and] areas for focus that the seller has been involved in?”

Effective Nov. 9, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires companies to disclose “any human capital measures or objectives that the registrant focuses on in managing the business,” which would include attracting, developing and retaining talent. The SEC didn’t provide further specific guidance, and an analysis conducted by the law firm Gibson Dunn finds a lack of uniformity in disclosures by S&P 500 companies. Most of these firms include diversity & inclusion statements in the disclosure, but fewer provide hard metrics about the company’s efforts. Most disclose talent development efforts, and more than half provide general statements around recruiting and retaining talent. Less than half disclose employee engagement efforts.

Human capital management disclosures can yield clues about the quality of talent as well as their expectations around compensation, benefits and development. Can the acquiring bank effectively support the acquired employees? Can the acquirer adopt some attributes from the seller to better manage talent in their own organization?

Companies that value diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) may also look at the target’s progress in these areas. Bank Director’s 2021 Compensation Survey, conducted earlier this year, found 37% of respondents reporting that their banks focused more on DE&I initiatives in 2020 compared to 2019. However, 42% lack a formal program — especially banks below $1 billion in assets. Those that do track progress primarily focus on the percentage of women and minorities at different levels of the organization.

Daniela Arias, a senior audit manager at Crowe, leads the firm’s ESG services in the U.S. and has been consulting banks on these issues; she also works with private equity firms. She’s increasingly seeing ESG considered in due diligence, along with operational and financial matters. That includes DE&I. “What policies are there in place for diversity?” she says. “What are they doing to track the data of who’s making it to leadership? Do they have development programs in place to help move the needle on diversity?”

Governance —including board composition and practices — is also critically important, says Appelbaum. “Are there problems?” she asks. Is governance strong at the target? What are the weaknesses? For sellers, she suggests asking, “Do you want to align with a company that doesn’t do things well?”

Compliance gaps can help acquirers identify red flags in a target, adds Arias. “If an organization does not have the critical, basic compliance issues down, that is already indicative that there are so many other areas that are not being thought about.”

Vernon points out that there are still a lot of unknowns in the ESG space, especially relative to examining climate risk. “It’s been a lot of wait and see,” says Vernon. “We’re not quite sure, from a regulatory standpoint, what requirements are actually going to be there in the banking space.”

Acquisitions can add strength to an organization, from new business lines and markets to talent. From an ESG perspective, the post-deal bank could emerge stronger. “For some, combining two organizations enhances the ESG picture,” says Appelbaum. One organization may have strengths when it comes to data security; the other may have a great training program.

While ESG won’t drive the selection of a target, an acquirer should understand the progress the seller has made — and whether there will be any issues. Appelbaum recommends starting with the target’s ESG policy and determining whether it’s aligned with the buyer. Also, look for feedback the seller has received from large investors and other stakeholders on ESG. “What’s been done to make headway with those institutional investors?” she says.

Arias helps companies consider their ESG roadmap, identifying where they are and where they want to go. “There are so many existing processes [and] operations that are ESG-related and … need to be brought together into one cohesive structure,” she says. Companies need to understand where they’re strong on ESG and where they need to improve. Once they have that picture, they can then ask, “Where do we need to be for organizations of our size within our industry?”

The banking industry may be in the early stages on ESG, but a strong program could become a competitive advantage. “From a seller’s perspective, in my opinion, the best way to execute a good deal and get that good price is to figure out what your competitive advantage is,” says Vernon. A seller could also be swayed by an acquirer with a strong ESG reputation that will have a positive impact on the seller’s community and employees. “On a go-forward basis, you could have a competitive advantage in ESG,” he adds.

And Arias advises that banks shouldn’t focus on specific metrics.  “Presenting your value from an ESG perspective is not about hitting the metrics,” she says. “It’s about showing progress, transparency, showing where you are, where you intend to go, and what are the steps that you’re going to take to get there.”

For a primer on getting started with ESG, view the video “Starting Your ESG Journey,” part of the Online Training Series. You may also consider reading “ESG: Walk Before You Run” for more considerations on where to start, or “Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics” to explore why your ESG program should include customer financial health. For questions boards should consider asking about climate change, read “The Topic That’s Missing From Strategic Discussions” and “Confronting Climate Change” from the third quarter 2021 issue of Bank Director magazine.

Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, surveyed 229 independent directors, CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $600 billion in assets to understand current growth strategies, particularly M&A. The survey was conducted in September 2021.

Bank Director’s 2021 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Newcleus Compensation Advisors, surveyed 282 independent directors, chief executive officers, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $50 billion in assets to understand talent trends, cultural shifts, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2021.

Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey, sponsored by Moss Adams LLP, received responses from 188 independent directors, chief executive officers, chief risk officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $50 billion in assets. The survey was conducted in January 2021, and focuses on the key risks facing the industry today and how banks will emerge from the pandemic environment.

Creating a Comprehensive ESG Approach, From Compliance to Competitiveness

Not only are investors increasingly incorporating environmental, social and governance, or ESG, factors in decisions about how to allocate their capital, but customers, employees and other stakeholders are also placing greater emphasis on ESG matters.

ESG will also continue to be a focus for regulators, with a particular emphasis on climate-related risks. It has rapidly evolved from a compliance matter to a strategic and competitive consideration; boards of directors and management teams should respond with both short-term action and preparation for the longer term. We review key developments and offer six steps that boards and management can take now to position a bank for the current ESG environment.

SEC’s Approach to Climate Change
The Securities and Exchange Commission has made considerations relating to ESG topics a top priority going forward, especially with respect to climate change-related issues. Chair Gary Gensler has charged SEC staff with developing a rule proposal on mandatory climate risk disclosure by the end of this year. Based on Gensler’s statements, the rulemaking is likely to be distinct from approaches developed by private framework providers and may not necessarily be tailored according to company size, maturity or other similar metrics.

Gensler has emphasized the importance of climate change disclosures generating “consistent and comparable” and “decision-useful” information. These disclosures may be contained in Form 10-K; given the tight timeframes associated with preparation of Form 10-K filings, this approach may require certain registrants to adjust their data collection and verification practices.

Bank Regulators’ Approach to Climate Change
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has indicated that he supports the Fed playing a role in educating the public about the risks of climate change to help inform elected officials’ policy decisions. The Fed established a Financial Stability Climate Committee to identify, assess and address climate-related risks to financial stability across the financial system, as well as the Supervision Climate Committee to help understand implications of climate change for financial institutions, infrastructure and markets.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are also taking climate risk seriously. In July, the OCC joined the Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System and announced the appointment of Darrin Benhart as its first climate change risk officer. Most recently, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Michael Hsu said the OCC is working with interagency peers to develop effective climate risk management guidance. The FDIC expects financial institutions to consider and address climate risks in their operating environment.

ESG as Competitive Advantage
Many companies have begun integrating ESG considerations into their products and strategies. Some research has shown that ESG can drive consumer preferences, with certain consumer demographics using ESG factors to differentiate among products. Younger demographics, for example, are choosing banks according to ESG credentials. Moreover, ESG considerations are becoming increasingly important to certain employee bases.

ESG issues are also top-of-mind for many investors, driven by prominent institutional investors that are linking a company’s ESG profile with its long-term financial performance and other stakeholders who want to align investments with social values and goals.

Directors and management teams should engage in an honest self-assessment of their bank’s ESG status, including determining which ESG matters are most material to their business. They should establish processes for board-level ESG strategy and oversight, along with clear management authority and reporting lines. They should also strengthen controls around ESG quantitative reporting. Ultimately, management should now consider whether and how to begin integrating ESG into commercial activities and overall strategy. With that in mind, here are six steps that boards and management can take now:

  1. Conduct a self-assessment on ESG matters, including on materiality, performance and controls.
  2. Begin preparations for an imminent SEC rulemaking on mandatory climate change disclosure that could potentially apply to Form 10-Ks in time for the 2022 fiscal year.
  3. Strengthen ESG processes and controls, while allowing flexibility for frequent reevaluation.
  4. Understand the key players in the ESG space and their varied perspectives.
  5. Establish responsibility for maintenance of a core ESG knowledge base and awareness of key developments.
  6. Monitor ESG developments as part of operational and strategic planning.

Bank M&A Survey Results: Technology, Competitive Pressures Drive Deal Activity in 2022

On Oct. 12, banking industry observers awoke to a surprise: Umpqua Holdings Corp. and Columbia Banking System announced their intent to form a $50 billion-plus franchise on the West Coast. Prior to the deal, Umpqua appeared to prioritize its organic growth strategy, Piper Sandler & Co. Managing Director Matthew Clark explained in a note published later that day. Columbia, on the other hand, seemed more interested in smaller deals. 

The combination is the latest transformative, scale-building deal announced in 2021, including M&T Bank Corp. and People’s United Financial, Webster Financial Corp. and Sterling Bancorp, and New York Community Bancorp and Flagstar Bancorp. The rationale of those deals aligns with the M&A drivers identified by senior executives and board members in Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP. When asked about the primary factors that make M&A an important piece of their bank’s growth strategy, more than half seek to achieve scale to invest in technology and other key areas. Further, respondents point to a complementary culture (64%), locations in growing markets (58%) and efficiency gains (56%) when asked to identify the attributes of an effective target.

“This is an exciting combination that brings together two well-respected organizations and talented teams, accelerating our shared strategic objectives to create the leading regional bank headquartered in the West,” said Umpqua CEO Cort O’Haver in a press release. Added scale will allow further investment in technology and expand the bank’s offerings, enhancing its competitive position across “high-growth, attractive markets” in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Nevada. 

In an environment characterized by digital acceleration, high competition for customers and talent, and continued low interest rates, a strategic combination may prove too compelling for some to pass up.

Almost half of survey respondents say their institution is likely to purchase another bank by the end of 2022 — a significant increase compared to the previous year, and more in line with the pre-pandemic environment. Given the usual pace of M&A, it’s unlikely that most of these prospective acquirers will find a willing target. But the same factors that spur acquirers to build scale also propel sellers: 42% of respondents to Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey say that an inability to keep pace with the digital evolution could drive their bank to sell.

Key Findings

The Right Price
Price remains a key barrier to deals, as noted by 73% of respondents. The plurality of prospective buyers (43%) indicate they’re willing to pay up to 1.5 times tangible book value for a target. Nineteen percent say they’d pay up to 1.75 times book; 9% would pay more.

Many Open to MOEs
Almost half of respondents say they’d consider a merger of equals or similar strategic combination in today’s environment. Of these, 39% say their board and management team is more likely to consider such a deal compared to before the pandemic — representing a shift in mindset for some bank leaders.

Increased Focus on ESG in M&A
While most banks are unlikely to take a comprehensive view of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues when examining a potential deal, the majority of banks consider ESG factors when assessing strategic fit. Key among those are cultural alignment (89%), reputational risks and opportunities (73%), employee relationships/engagement (62%) and data security/privacy (51%), which can be classified as social or governance within the ESG umbrella. 

Optimism About the Economy
Almost three-quarters of respondents believe the U.S. economy will experience modest growth in 2022; 14% say it will grow significantly. Further, almost all say that businesses have recovered in their markets, though some sectors remain stressed. And while 88% report that business clients express concerns about supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, most believe that this won’t have a material impact on credit quality. 

Reduced Credit Risk Concerns
Last year’s survey found the top barrier to deals was asset quality; 63% of respondents named it the top concern. This year, just 36% express concerns about asset quality. In addition, fewer express concerns about loan concentrations in commercial real estate, retail or the oil sector.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

Practical Thoughts for the Evolving Role of the Compensation Committee

Much has been written in recent months about the external forces accelerating investor, proxy advisor and employee focus on the topic of human capital management.

From the Securities and Exchange Commission Form 10-K human capital management disclosure requirement to a broader recognition from investors and insurers that people risk and opportunities are a material environmental, social and governance factor for every company — small and large — the compensation committee is even more central to a firm’s ESG strategy and journey than ever before.

Historically, the compensation committee charter duties were primarily focused on the chief executive officer’s  compensation and performance, as well as those elements for the broader executive officer population. However, as regulator and investor focus has shifted from executive compensation to broader human capital management, so too has the focus of many compensation committees.

In fact, many companies have changed the compensation committee name to reflect this expanded scope of duty: “Human Capital Committee” or “People Committee” are among some of the other derivations of these names. In fact, a majority of respondents in Aon’s Fall 2021 ESG Oversight Survey indicated that “human capital management” and diversity, equity and inclusion are formal duties of the compensation committee. Additionally, many companies have formally updated their charter documents to include oversight of human capital management and, increasingly, diversity, equity and inclusion related duties.

This expanded role into broader people risk and opportunities poses new challenges for the compensation committee. While compensation committees have gotten comfortable with external expectations surrounding executive compensation, the issue of broader workforce management requires a heavier coordination with corporate human resources teams. Like any  ESG topic, board or committee level oversight of a material ESG risk factor, such as human capital management, requires a clear definition of each group’s role, strong communication and information flow practices, along with an effective committee agenda list for each calendared meeting. The role of the compensation committee should not be to micromanage management teams on workforce planning, but to be informed enough on this topic to act as an independent, internal activist on the behalf of shareholders and employees.

Best Practice Considerations
With these aforementioned variables in mind, Aon recommends compensation committees consider the following best practice considerations heading into the 2022 proxy season:

  • Stay Informed. Stay current on regulations, investor expectations, and employee and market sentiment as it relates to the workforce. Use your compensation consultant or outside governance advisors to obtain necessary trends and information.
  • Ask the Right Questions. Be clear on what the company’s human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion-related goals are, and how they are tracking and defining success or failure. Know the extent to which such information is publicly disclosed or not, and understand if all such disclosures are consistent across all public forums.
  • Think Holistically. External observers are not looking at executive compensation decisions in isolation anymore. How your bank pays the CEO and other officers will be compared to how it treats the broader workforce. If you have lay-offs, furloughs or broader workforce compensation cuts, there will be an expectation that executive compensation be aligned with those broader actions. Stakeholders are evaluating executive compensation decisions in a broader context, so it is important to factor in all of these variables. It may also require greater coordination with the nominating and governance committee, if they own succession planning duties.
  • Give Yourself Credit. With human capital management being a material risk factor for virtually all industries, it is important to tell your story. If you do not proactively do this, someone else will — and it likely will not be favorable. Give yourself credit for the oversight, process, and practices that you have worked on with management to cultivate a meaningful human capital management strategy.

ESG Disclosure on the Horizon for Financial Institutions

Over the last several years, investors, regulators and other stakeholders have sought an increase of environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosures by public companies.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken a cautious approach to developing uniform ESG disclosure requirements, but made a series of public statements and took preliminary steps this year indicating that it may soon enhance its climate-related disclosure requirements for all public companies, including financial institutions. To that end, the SEC’s spring 2021 agenda included four ESG-related rulemakings in the proposed rule stage, noting October 2021 for a climate-related disclosure proposed rule. The SEC is also sifting through an array of comments on its March 15 solicitation of input on how the Commission should fashion new climate disclosure requirements.

Recent speeches by Chair Gary Gensler and Commissioners Allison Herren Lee and Elad Roisman highlight some of the key elements of disclosure likely under consideration by the staff, as well as their personal priorities in this area. Commissioner Lee has asserted that the SEC has full rulemaking authority to require any disclosures in the public interest and for the protection of investors. She noted that an issue also having a social or political concern or component does not foreclose its materiality. Commissioner Lee has also commented on the disclosure of gender and diversity data and on boards’ roles in considering ESG matters.

Commissioner Roisman has noted that standardized ESG disclosures are very difficult to craft and that some ESG data is inherently imprecise, relies on continually evolving assumptions and can be calculated in multiple different ways. Commissioner Roisman has advocated for the SEC to tailor disclosure requirements, and phase in and extend the implementation period for ESG disclosures. Meanwhile, Chair Gensler has also asked the SEC staff to look at potential requirements for registrants that have made forward-looking climate commitments, the factors that should underlie the claims of funds marketing themselves as “sustainable, green, or ‘ESG’” and fund-naming conventions, and enhancements to transparency to improve diversity and inclusion practices within the asset management industry.

Significance for Financial Institutions
In the financial services industry, the risks associated with climate change encompass more than merely operational risk. They can include physical risk, transition risk, enterprise risk, regulatory risk, internal control risk and valuation risk. Financial institutions will need to consider how their climate risk disclosures harmonize with their enterprise risk management, internal controls and valuation methodologies. Further, they will need to have internal controls around the gathering of such valuation inputs, data and assumptions. Financial institutions therefore should consider how changes to the ESG disclosure requirements affect, and are consistent with, other aspects of their overall corporate governance.

Likewise, financial institutions should also consider how human capital disclosures align with enterprise risk management. Registrants will not only need to ensure that the collection of quantitative diversity data results in accurate disclosure, but also how diversity disclosures might affect reputational risk and whether any corporate governance changes may be needed to mitigate those concerns.

We recommend that financial institutions consider the following:

  • Expect to include a risk factor addressing climate change risks, and for the robustness and scope of that risk factor to increase.
  • Consider disclosing how to achieve goals set by public pledges, as well as whether the mechanisms to measure progress against such goals are in place.
  • Expect ESG disclosure requirements to become more prescriptive and for quantitative ESG disclosures to become more sophisticated. Prepare to identify the appropriate sources of information in a manner subject to customary internal controls.
  • Establish a strong corporate governance framework to evaluate ESG risks throughout your organization, including how your board will engage with such risks.
  • Incorporate ESG disclosures into disclosure controls and procedures.
  • Consider whether and how to align executive compensation with relevant ESG metrics and other strategic goals.

Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics

Imagine a local manufacturer, beloved as an employer and a pillar of the community. The company uses 100% renewable energy and carefully manages its supply chain to be environmentally conscious. The manufacturer has a diverse group of employees, upper managers and board. It pays well and provides health benefits. It might be considered a star when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) parameters.

Now imagine news breaks: Its product causes some customers to develop cancer, an outcome the company ignored for years. How did a good corporate citizen not care about this? You could say this was a governance failure. Everyone would agree that it was a trust-busting event for customers.

ESG, at its root, is about looking at the overall impact of a company. The most profound impact of banks is the impact of banking products. Most bank products are built for use in a perfect world with perfect compliance, but perfect compliance is hard for some people. Noncompliance disproportionately affects the most vulnerable customers ⎯ people living paycheck-to-paycheck and managing their money with little margin to spare. That isn’t to say that these individuals are all under or near the poverty line: Fully 18% of people who earn more than $100,000 say they live paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey of 8,000 U.S. workers by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. There is growing recognition that bank products need to reflect the realities of more and more Americans.

Years ago, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares started working on better overdraft solutions for customers whose financial lives were far from perfect. Currently, the $123 billion regional bank will not charge for overdrafts under $50 if a customer automatically deposits their paycheck. If the customer overdrafts $50 or more, the bank sends them an alert to correct it within 24 hours.

Likewise, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group recently announced a new feature that gives PNC Virtual Wallet customers 24 hours to cure an overdraft without having to pay a fee.  If not corrected, an overdraft amounts to a maximum of $36 per day.

“With this new tool, we’re able to shift away from the industry’s widely used overdraft approach, which we believe is unsustainable,” said William Demchak, chairman and CEO of the $474 billion bank, in a statement. The statement alone reframes what sustainability means for banking.

The banks that become ESG leaders will create products that improve the long-term financial health of their retail and small businesses customers. To do so, some financial institutions are asking their customers to measure their current financial realities in order to provide better solutions.

For example, Credit Human, a $3.2 billion credit union in San Antonio, is putting financial health front and center both in their branches and digitally. Their onboarding process directs individuals to a financial health analysis supported by FinHealthCheck, a data tool that helps banks and credit unions measure the financial health of customers and the potential outcomes of the products they offer. The goal of Credit Human is to improve the financial health of their customers and eventually make it a part of the overall measurement of the product’s performance.

Measurement alone will not build better bank products. But it will provide banks and credit union executives with critical information to align their products with customer well being. With the implementation of overdraft avoidance programs such as PNC’s Low Cash Mode, the bank expects to help its customers avoid approximately $125 million to $150 million in overdraft fees annually. PNC benefits its bottom line by driving more customers to its Virtual Wallet, nabbing merchant fee income and creating customer loyalty in the process. PNC’s move makes it clear that they believe promoting the long-term financial health of their customers promotes the long-term financial health of the company.

Banks need to avoid appearing to care about ESG, while failing to care about customers. The banks that include customer financial health in their ESG measurement will survive, thrive and become the true ESG stars.

ESG: Walk Before You Run

Covid-19 and last year’s protests over racial injustice added to the mounting pressure corporations face to make progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues — but banks may be further ahead than they believe.

“ESG took on a life of its own in 2020,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner at the consulting firm McLagan. Institutional investors have slowly turned up the heat on corporate America, along with community groups, proxy firms and ratings agencies, and regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, which now mandates a human capital management disclosure in annual reports. Customers want to know where companies stand. Prospective employees want to know if a company shares their values. And President Joe Biden’s administration promises to focus more on social and environmental issues.

Big banks like Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have been responding to these pressures, but now ESG is trending down through the industry. With the right approach, banks may find that these practices actually improve their operations. However, smaller community and regional banks can’t — and probably shouldn’t — merely copy the ESG practices of their larger brethren. “People have to think about what’s appropriate for their bank, given [its] size and location,” says Appelbaum. “What are they already doing that they could expand and beef up?”

That means banks shouldn’t feel pressured to go big or go home when it comes to ESG. Begin with the basics: Has your bank reduced waste by encouraging paperless statements? How many hours do employees spend volunteering in the community? “When you sit down and talk to bankers about this, it’s interesting to see [their] eyes open,” says Brandon Koeser, senior manager and financial services senior analyst at the consulting firm RSM. The pandemic shed light on how banks support their employees and communities. “The reality is, so much of what they’re doing is part of ESG.”

Robin Ferracone, CEO of the consultancy Farient Advisors, tells companies to think of ESG as a journey, one that keeps strategy at its core. “You need to walk before you run. If you try to bite [it] all off at once, you can get overwhelmed,” she says. Organizations should prioritize what’s important to their strategy and stakeholders. ESG objectives should be monitored, revisited and adjusted along the way.

Stakeholders are watching. Glacier Bancorp CEO Randall Chesler was surprised to learn just how closely in a conversation with one of the bank’s large investors two years ago.

“One of our investors asked us, ‘Have you looked at this? We see your score isn’t very good; are you aware of that? What are you going to do about it?’ And that was the first time that we started to dig into it and realized that we were being scored by ISS,” says Chesler. (Institutional Shareholder Services provides an ESG rating on companies, countries and bonds to inform investors.)

It turned out that $18.5 billion Glacier was doing a lot, particularly around the social and governance aspects of ESG. The Kalispell, Montana-based bank just wasn’t telling its story. This is a common ESG gap for community and regional banks.

Glacier worked with consultants to develop a program and put together a community and social responsibility report, which is available in the investor relations section of its website, along with other governance documents such as its code of ethics. This provided the right level of information to lift Glacier’s score. “Our benchmark was, we want to be at our peer-level scoring on ESG,” says Chesler. “[We] ended up actually better. And we continue to watch our scores.”

“Community banks have the social and governance aspects covered better than many industries because [banks are] heavily regulated,” says Joe Scott, a managing director at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Where they likely lag, he says, is around the environment; most are just beginning to assess these risks to their business. And it’s important that banks get this right as stakeholders increasingly focus on ESG. “We’re hearing that, beyond equity and debt investors, larger depositors — particularly corporate depositors, institutional depositors, state treasurers’ officers [and] others like that — are incorporating ESG into their considerations on who they place large deposits with. That could be a theme over time— other kinds of stakeholders factoring in ESG more and more.”

Key Compensation Issues in a Turbulent Market

As compensation committee chair, Susan knew 2020 was going to be an important year for the bank.

The compensation and governance committee had taken on the topic of environmental, social and governance (ESG) for the coming year. They had conducted an audit and knew where their gaps were; Susan knew it was going take time to address all the shortfalls. Fortunately, the bank was performing well, the stock was moving in the right direction and they had just approved the 2020 incentive plans. All in all, she was looking forward to the year as she put her finished notes on the February committee meeting.

Two months later, Susan had longed for the “good old days” of February. With the speed and forcefulness that Covid-19 impacted the country, states and areas the bank served, February seemed like a lifetime ago. The bank had implemented the credit loss standard at the end of March — due to the impact of the unemployment assumptions, the CECL provision effectively wiped out the 2020 profitability. This was on top of the non-branch employees working from home, and the bank doing whatever it could to serve its customers through the Paycheck Protection Program.

Does this sound familiar to your bank? The whirlwind of 2020 has brought a focus on a number of issues, not the least of which is executive compensation. Specifically, how are your bank’s plans fairing in light of such monumental volatility? We will briefly review annual and long-term performance plans as well as a construct for how to evaluate these programs.

The degree to which a bank’s annual and long-term incentive (LTI) plans have been impacted by Covid-19 hinge primarily on two factors. First, how much are the plans based upon GAAP bottom-line profitability? Second, and primarily for LTI plans, how much are the performance-based goals based upon absolute versus relative performance?

In reviewing annual incentive plans, approximately 90% of banks use bottom-line earnings in their annual scorecards. For approximately 50% of firms, the bottom-line metrics represent a majority of their goals for their annual incentive plans. These banks’ 2020 scorecards are at risk; they are evaluating how to address their annual plan for 2020. Do they change their goals? Do they utilize a discretionary overlay? And what are the disclosure implications if they are public?

There is a similar story playing out for long-term incentive plans — with a twist. The question for LTI plans is how much are performance-based goals based upon absolute versus peer relative profitability metrics? Two banks can have the same size with the same performance, and one bank’s LTI plan can be fine and the other may have three years of LTI grants at risk of not vesting, due to their performance goals all being based on an absolute basis. In the banking industry, slightly more than 60% of firms use absolute goals in their LTI plans and therefore have a very real issue on their hands, given the overall impact of Covid-19.

Firms that are impacted by absolute goals for their LTI plans have to navigate a myriad level of accounting and SEC disclosure issues. At the same time, they have to address disclosure to ensure that institutional investors both understand and hopefully support any contemplated changes. Everyone needs to be “eyes wide open” with respect to any potential changes being contemplated.

As firms evaluate any potential changes to their executive performance plans, they need to focus on principles, process and patience. How do any potential changes reconcile to changes for the entire staff on compensation? How are the executives setting the tone with their compensation changes that will be disclosed, at least for public companies? How are they utilizing a “two touch” process with the compensation committee to ensure time for proper review and discourse? Are there any ESG concerns or implications, given its growing importance?

Firms will need patience to see the “big picture” with respect to any changes that are done for 2020 and what that may mean for 2021 compensation.